Satan’s Rock

Part Nineteen

Reflections

Arthur Herritt toyed with his glass, rotating the thick leaden stem between finger and thumb, staring into its deep ruby charge of Port as though some vision might appear.  He would discard no possibility of resolution these days.

“I feel – I cannot deny it – such attachment to her.  This extraordinary sense of familiarity is most perplexing.”

Across the polished walnut acres of his desk, Abel Montcleif frowned.  As Arthur’s business manager he had several caps to wear.  As his lifelong friend, he had only one.   “You know so little of her…”

“That I concede.  In spite of my sensibilities, that I must concede.”

“And I have been able to discover little more.”  The higher pitch of Montcleif’s voice found greater clarity in the dark lustre of the panelled room.  “In essence all we have is a woman who arrived in our city a decade since, already bearing someone’s child.  Even her name is not her own.”

“Her guardian?”

“Jebediah Fletcher?   I spoke with him, and found him quite pleased to be rid of her.   Whether that reticence is motivated by guilt, or fear, or both, is open to question.  He certainly seems more than willing to relinquish any claim to Mrs Delisle.”

“Guilt?”

“Knowing the man as we do, is it not difficult to believe he gave her shelter merely as an act of charity?   She is a fine young woman, Arthur…”

“I know it…”

“And therefore vulnerable – or calculating.  I don’t wish to impugn her character, but we do not know it.  And the Hart-Witterington fortune is an inestimable prize.”

Arthur sighed, “No, that is too obvious.  I shall not accept she is merely clever.”   He sipped from his wine; “What news of the lady’s assailants?”

“None, I fear.   The one you shot wore only that simple robe.  There were no brands upon his body.  I spoke with the Justice and he is satisfied the man was a scoundrel:  you shall hear no more of that.  The other?  No trace, although it does seem the pair of them together may tally with Mrs Delisle’s accounts of two men who she saw loitering by Jebediah’s house.”

“So, we have gained no ground?”

Montcleif cocked an eyebrow; “A certain young lady would seem to have gained considerable advantage, would she not?   Albeit (I shall add hurriedly) she may be in no doubt wisdom – and caution – will prevail.”   He rose to his feet, walking slowly past Arthur’s desk to the window.  “Yet there is something…”

Arthur  turned in his chair “Something?”

“Aye, sir.  Something troubling, in its way…or, should I admit, it troubles me?  It has no direct connection to Mrs DeLisle, however.  Ye recall the night of the great storm?”

“Most certainly.   My blessed guardian first took ill upon that night while I sojourned in Bleanstead, a distance down the coast where the storm was less severe.     There, of course, I first met with Mrs Delisle; is that of significance?  ”

“As to its significance, I must leave you to judge.  Though none so grave to us as Lord David’s mortal illness, that night certainly brought a confluence of events.  We were fortunate not to lose two of our ships.   The ‘Pietrie’ was torn from her moorings, and the Pelligore was lucky to make safe harbour.  Less widely acknowledged, yet nonetheless important, Lord Crowley lost his life that night.   You may have heard?”

“I believe I did – although he had been unwell for some time, had he not?  Eccentric old buzzard, ’tis said; built himself a bird’s nest on top of St. Benedict’s Rock.  The ugliest house in the land, I have heard it called.  Yes, that was a fatal night indeed.”

“What if it was more than that?”

“How say you?”

“That night the gale did its best to strip old Crowley’s house from the rock.  There were those who said it should never have been built there, that the rock was an unholy place, the haunt of a monkish clan who consorted with the Devil.  Those same voices insist the storm unleashed the rock’s venom upon this valley; a plague of snakes, gull attacks on anyone who ventured to make safe the house, or even recover the old Lord’s body. The ingress of vermin has led right up the River Leven to our very doors!  Peculiar, is it not, that Jebediah Fletcher’s fears for his safety as Mrs Delisle’s ward have burgeoned from that time?”

You paint a powerful case, Abel.  I shall keep my rabbit’s foot close to hand.”

“You jest, but how many murders have there been in Mountchester this year?   Street crimes, motiveless stabbings, child killings?”

“Oh come!  This is the currency of the mob, surely?  Have you forgotten the cholera has only recently left us?  There are penniless war casualties everywhere – these are troubled times!”

“I know, Arthur, I know, but still I have suspicions.  ‘T‘is as if the storm spilled over a pot of imperfections and they run through the streets like an Egyptian plague.”

So Lord Hart’s death, and Crowley’s, and Mrs Delisle’s misfortunes – all were ordained upon that night?”

“Well, sir, mayhap they were.  Meanwhile, does the good lady seem secure here?”

“Indeed she does, Abel.  She and the maid we picked for her have become fast friends.  They seem quite conspiratorial at times.  Ah, and I have employed a teacher of pianoforte to give her lessons, which will please you.  He is as perplexed as I, for she has skills as a musician, he thinks, yet no notion of an instrument she might have learned to play.”

#

Saturday afternoon was a time for relaxation, a quest for inner peace of which Alice Burbridge’s bathing ceremony was an implicit part.  She had risen at six-thirty, sneezing from a slight cold, donned her black, lavender-piped track-suit and taken her usual run in the park.    Dressed for the day in sloppy Pringle and Ralph Lauren she had breakfasted  (a little cereal, a piece of pawpaw, some black coffee) then shopped;  a taxi from Lancaster Gate to Kensington, a spidery lunch of green salad with a friend before, surrounded by fashionable bags, a taxi back to her flat, to close her door on the world.    There was  magic in the clicking of locks as they secured her against intrusion, a moment of purity as she threw the switches to turn off her intercom, trip out the doorbell.  These were the things, once in each week, that she treasured.  Alice’s time, and hers alone.

In her bathroom she shed a white towelling bathrobe in front of a triptych of full-length mirrors to survey her nakedness critically, rather as an aesthete  might evaluate a work of fine art, and here pause, increasingly with the years, to wonder: where had all the cynicism come from?  Why were those little lines around her mouth always and always creeping back?  What had spawned the empty pool of hopelessness behind her great, dark eyes?

Alice put all doubts into a little box of forgetfulness to leave stashed by the mirrors for another week, running her bath carefully, adding the cocktail of oils she favoured, testing its temperature to perfection.     When she wrapped herself in the waters they must caress, enfold, cradle her.   Head back, she could close her eyes, and there would be her mother waiting for her as she pushed her bike through the wicker-gate in the garden of her childhood; Sid the rough collie pursuing that toy ring she used to throw; air thick with the scent of gardenia and lilac, fresh in the morning sun.   Home in summer.

    Pleasant lethargy would set her mind adrift to her early career: that first hesitating entrance to a room of stern faces, the auditions which so amused her now, so tormented her then.  The questions, the eyes that crept and saw too much, no matter who was a friend of a friend, a contact, a recipient of her father’s money, or next season’s shining star.  The young, successful model, in the good days.

Then the memory forever present: Paul Bascoe.  He who spoke softly with just the lilt of an accent, like warming her hands by a fire.   His gentle voice commanded, and how gladly she had obeyed!  Her body still purred when she remembered.  He had taken her with no fumbling uncertainty, no doubt or imprecision.   He had taken her as she had always wanted to be taken and still did; smoothly powerful, impossible to deny.   Oh, how he had opened her, exposed the whore in her, taught her about herself as no other man had done before or since!  Never in her direst nightmares could she have imagined it was just a test!   What did it say about the woman in this bath that the greatest night of her life had been an application for a job?

She did get a letter from him, just one, inviting her to recall how she had admitted to enjoyment of risk – the threat of discovery; could she see herself risk-taking in other situations, perhaps in pursuit of information, or in seeking people who were missing?  If so, there was someone she should see…

Alice went to her first meeting with Jeremy Piggott more in the hope of finding Bascoe again than anything.   She had never thought of herself as physically brave.   When Jeremy had told her what he wanted her to do she was hard put to avoid breaking into a run as she left; yet within a month she was in his office again, signing documents which bound her by the Official Secrets Act. 

The work?  It started slowly at first, then, as contacts led to other contacts a few leads proved productive: a modelling Agency importing cocaine, a colleague who was people trafficking.   Small fry.

Her big break came on a high profile shoot in Bahrain.  She met Prince Shumal at a royal reception and found the heady perfume of power intoxicating: in a week of debauchery she underwent recruitment to the Prince’s Amadhi cause.   Her double life had begun.

Thereafter the chess-game of existence as a double agent pleased Alice: no, it did more than that, it excited her, it thrilled.  Wherever her modelling work took her, she excelled; manipulating, juggling relationships, even casual meetings under the ever-present gaze of two jealous masters.   British Intelligence as her official paymaster gave her an office, a security clearance which passed muster with the Amadhi.  Even when fate had thrown her a curved ball – tripping over Yahedi in Hyde Park, not knowing she had accidentally kicked the American Senator’s intended assassin – not until she saw him again in the Prince’s Apartments, she was able to handle it:  she was comfortable as long as she was within the structure, knew whose side she was on.  This was why she found the circumstances surrounding Peter Cartwright so disquieting.  Her loyalties were confused.

Feeling a first chill as the waters which embraced her cooled, Alice emerged from her bath with aphrodisian grace.   She took a warm towel from the rail and returned to her bedroom where, donning a fresh bathrobe, she seated herself at her dressing table.   More mirrors: a fresh triumvirate of mirror-glass, and a chance for a little private game she liked:  a companionable conversation with herself, the Alice in the looking-glass.  In a drawer of her dressing table lay the tablet she used to record her thoughts.  While it was booting up she rehearsed the questions she would ask.

 Piggott had learned who and where Peter was, but not from her.   Although she had known his whereabouts from the first she had said nothing to Piggott about their first meeting, nor had she implicated Vincent Harper.   Why?

 “Why didn’t you tell Jerry you had met the boy?”  The mirror asked her.  She was pleased by her questioning stare, the slightly creased brow.  So cool!

She answered, “Because I don’t think they can understand what he is.”

“Does that matter?”  Asked her reflection.

“Yes, it must.  Jerry just sees him as a pawn.  If Vince is correct, there’s a chance he may be a lot more than that:  he may be the White Knight.  God knows we need one.”

The mirror scowled, “What gives you the authority to make that judgement?”

“Nothing, no-one.   Jerry will lock him in a room, treat him as a spy.  The Arabs want him dead.   They want everyone who gets in their way dead.   So what are the choices?  Nobody speaks for the boy:  I don’t think anyone can.  And now there is a girl, too.   She made the picture, didn’t she?  Is she the kingpin?”

“Vincent does.   Vincent speaks for the boy!”   Alice paused:  startled by the simplicity of the mirror’s answer.    “Vincent…..he’s the key to this!    Where did he learn about the boy?”   She was deep in the throes of her little play, pleased with the way her eyes came alive, the fresh flush of her cheeks as she spoke: how lovely, how flawless those features still were!   See the way she could still turn on that arch look, her head downcast, eyes suddenly raised to see …?

Oh no!

Bourta was a reflection in the glass just long enough for Alice to recognise him before his big hands swung her round in her chair.   Overbalanced, she clattered to the floor and her head hit the corner of her dressing table with a bang.  An array of flashing lights filled her vision, blinding pain exploded in her head. Jerry had warned her, shown her pictures of what this man could do.  Oh god those pictures! 

“Allah…Allah protect you!”  She prattled the words, “Brother, we are both Amadhi.  Why do you steal in here like a thief?”

“Beautiful woman – beautiful Alice Burbridge!”   Bourta smiled down, a row of glistening teeth.  “Are you Amadhi?   I do wonder so.   Please tell me, who is ‘the boy’?”

She was aware of her robe being torn aside.  She felt the pressure of Bourta’s arousal as he knelt over her and she knew that those photographs had not lied. 

 As she knew she was already dead.

“What boy?”   She tried to say.  Then the knife cut her face in half.

Pain entered her like a fire which invaded so many places on her body that all the agonies became one.  The cut across her mouth was just the first, for the knife was in skilled hands, butcher’s hands.    Alice may have been conscious of two people in the room, may have heard their questions, registered the anger of one with the other as it was recognised not that she would not answer, but she could not.  She had no means left to speak.   Inside her some tiny vestige of a voice told her this was not for ever, it was just a gateway.  Soon she would pass through; soon it would all be gone.

“Who is the boy?  Tell us of the boy.  Tell us where this boy lives!”

Where was the white light?  She had been told about it; she had read about it – the long tunnel and the white light which always came.    Where was the fucking white light?

“There is a female?   Does she live with the boy?  Who is ‘Vincent’?  If you cannot say it, write it!”

Paper thrust in front of her, something, maybe a pen, pressed into her hand – but fading, not important anymore.   No pain now. She was standing before the gate and there was her mother in the garden: And here at last, at the very last, was home.

#

The telephone call had brought Piggott news he half-expected and dreaded.   So the ring on his doorbell found him ready in coat and hat to make a solemn evening journey.

A sallow youth who was his driver for the night stood waiting, a staff car murmured on the street.  When Jeremy opened the official envelope passed to him by the youth’s cold hand, saw the photographs it contained, there was no shock, no surprise. God help him – how many had there been of these?   He barely looked at them.   The Alice Burbridge they showed was not how she would want to have been remembered, and they had nothing to do with the woman he had known.  As the car whisked him across twilight London to the blood-soaked flat where her life had ended, he called in an APB on Mahennis Bourta, knowing it would be fruitless:  the man – if man was what this monster was – would be far away.

#

Flying at thirty-five thousand feet over the Caucasus, Bourta, his eyes turned to the cabin window, may have known  he had gone too far this time, that he had overstepped a final line.  Salaiman his friend – how many men had friends like Salaiman Yahedi?  – had turned his face.   Salaiman the Prince of Assassins turned away, showed him his back!    Had he outraged the conventions of death so grossly?    Was it not a momentous deed?    And in her death – yes, in her last agony how he had wanted, needed, desired that woman!      Bourta stared long and deep into the eastern night, searching for the first red of approaching dawn.  Only when he saw it, only when he had cleansed his hands of the day that was gone, would he rediscover sleep.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Header Image: Comfreak at Pixabay
‘Alice’ Ractapopulous at Pixabay
Mountains: Confused_me from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Twelve

Warm Summer Lightning

In the heat of  afternoon, thunder threatened.  Beyond  Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by  expectation.  No birds sang.  She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks.   Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest.   It was too hot!  Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep.  So when someone’s knuckles rapped  upon her door she was wide awake.

“Come in!”  Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought.  Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur.  He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.

“Arthur!”  It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…”  With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes,   The hand flapped helplessly.  Her face reddened in a furious blush.  “Forgive me!”

“No, no, no!”  Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine.   I will call upon you later, when you’re…”

He withdrew hastily.

She called after him.  “Please stay!”  She had’nt rung for her maid.  Why had she said it?  What possible excuse could she have for saying it?

Why did he turn?  What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour?  “If you…I mean, do you not..?”  Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?

She read his thoughts, laughed at herself.  She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly.  “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”

Advancing as  a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was.   “Why do I feel I remember you?”  He asked. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”

She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand.  “I feel ridiculous!  One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur.  Could you…?”

“Of course.”  He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug.  The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more.  Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.

“You saved my life, sir, today.”  She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again!  Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”

“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid.  He is a fine fellow.”

“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared.  “Is my little frog quite well?/”

“Exuberantly so, ma’am.  He has made a confidante of your maid.  Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”

“And I am forever in your debt.  Ah, me!  So many obligations!”   Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief.  A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts,  Arthur was captivated,   “You watch me closely, sir,”  she chided him kindly,  and it was his turn to blush.

With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth.   When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted?  What do you think it is that exists between us?”

He pondered that question deeply:   “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before.   On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it.  I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…”  He spread his hands.

Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they the window to his soul she would surely have opened it.  “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?”  Her long fingers absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and began to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch quite shamelessly.

Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation.  Arthur rose to his feet. 

“I must go!”  He exclaimed, afraid of himself.   He took her hand in both of his.  “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history.  You may be sure we shall uncover the truth.”

Don’t! Stay!  Her inner voice wanted him to remain, but he retreated purposefully and her door closed briskly behind him.  She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint.  Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute?    Of one thing she felt certain:  this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought.  Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a gate was rapidly closing, a gate only Maud could help her to find.  A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…

The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning.  Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury.  The storm had begun.

#

Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House.   For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice.   It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again.  From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.

 The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.

Melanie came with him for reasons of her own.   She had fallen in love with the place.  The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now.  She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there.   And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much.   The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her.  Here she felt welcomed, and at home.

Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity.   Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height?   Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her?   Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed.  Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay:  she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.

Last, though by no means least, there was Peter.   One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place.  In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she  was happy to accept and let grow.   For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter.   Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter.   Time would cease to have meaning.

“What things did he ask about me, Mel?”   Peter’s voice was close:  she felt his breath on her cheek.

“Hmmm?”   Melanie opened one eye.   “Are you asleep, Mel?  Well no, not now, Babes.”

His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue.  ‘I wish he would kiss me.’   Her thoughts said.    She raised herself on her elbows quickly:    “Who – what are you talking about?”

“Howard.   You said he was asking about me.  What did he ask?”

Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.

“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”

“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”

“This place?   Your little nightmare?   No, of course not.”   Melanie giggled.   “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”

“Did he react to that?”

“How do you mean, ‘react’?  Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”

“Ask more questions….”

“He was, well, a little probing.   But I didn’t give anything away.   Why are you so concerned?”

Peter shook his head.  “I don’t like him.  I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”    Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”

“Do we have to?  It’s really peaceful here.”

“Yes, we do.”  Mel insisted.   She was afraid of herself:  afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.

“Why?”

“I want to see if the House is still locked up.  If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be.   No-one should miss a day like this.”   It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work.  Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.

“Okay!”   In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet:   “First one to the top!”

“Oh, no – not a race!  You are so juvenile sometimes!”   But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips.   She followed with a resigned heart.

The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock.   Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons.  The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.

Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare.   Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight.   In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness:  a harmonizing with the isolation of the island.   He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past.  How many lives had perished on these slopes?   How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here?   Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end.  And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts.   He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below.   An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.

“Well now young Peter!”

The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.

“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister?  The house bain’t open today, you know.”

“Toby.”  Peter breathed:  “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”

“Friend, eh?  Don’t see no friend.”

“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.”   Peter tried to regain some self-possession:  “How are you, Toby?”

Toby did not, in fact, look very well.   His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look.  He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful.  Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.

Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum.  She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him.  The prospect was not pleasant.

“Hello Toby.”   She said.

Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands.  Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck.   She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity.   She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.

“Well now, everybody knows my name!”  Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth:  “You’m welcome, missy.  We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.”   The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar.  Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.

“Isn’t Vincent here?”   Peter stepped in hurriedly.

“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone.  Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”

“And Alice?”

Toby looked puzzled.  “Alice?   Don’t know no Alice.”

“But she was here when I was here.  Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”

“Oh, ‘Er!   Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’.   But bless you she don’t live ‘ere.   Never saw ‘er before that day you came.   Never seen ‘er since.”

As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent.  The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion.  One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three.  In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles.  In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too.  Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.

 “Caribbean?”  Peter suggested helpfully.

 “Ah, yes. That ‘un.”   Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added:   “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind.  Nothin!”

Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation.  He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House.  Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation.   Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.

As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon.   There was a song to the whole place.   Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through.  And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope.  Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock.   The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her.  It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….

“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?”   Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud.  They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them.  She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm.  Peter was nudging her.

“Wake up, Mel!”

Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’   Had she dreamt the words?   Was the rock talking to her?

“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?”  She found herself asking.

Toby’s face creased in a frown.  “Aye.  Expected he was, yes.”

“By whom, Toby?   Was it Vincent who invited him?”

“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”

“But he didn’t invite him.   It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.”  Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was.   A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?

Toby looked at her, then at Peter.   “Well, of course not.  Mr. Vincent was part of it.  ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all.  ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”

“Worked out what?”    Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.

“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e?  But you be. You’m expected.”

“But….hang on a minute…”  Peter reasoned.  “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you?   You asked me what I was doing here.”

“True.”  Toby pursed his lips.   “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”

Slowly but surely the truth dawned.  Melanie felt emptied.   “Me?”  She asked:  “I’m expected?”

Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again.  “See?  Now you’ve got it!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Image Credits:

Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay

Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.

Hallbury Summer – Episode Eighteen. Rhinemaiden

The story so far:

Joe Palliser, though torn between his moral responsibility to his friend Tom and his feelings for Emma, Tom’s wife, is nonetheless drawn towards buying a house in Hallbury. Meanwhile, he approaches a journalist from his local newspaper to learn more about the disappearance of Christian Matheson, a child abducted in Hallbury many years  before.  The fear is growing that his younger brother, Michael, may be implicated in Violet Parkin’s murder and even in the disappearance of the child.

Alone with his thoughts, he is asked for assistance by Jennifer, an attractive motorist apparently in distress.  He takes her to her hotel in his car and is briefly compromised by her advances, which he manages to resist.  However, the encounter has been observed, and photographed.  Jennifer is considerably more than she seems…

Wednesday dawned in shades of grey and in a while that grey became rain, and the rain became a sustained downpour.  Joseph drove into Braunston where, after no small amount of deliberation, he lodged an offer of three thousand nine hundred pounds with the agent handling the Lamb house.  There was no denying the conflict churning in his head:  Emma’s presence alone should have been enough to turn him away, to leave Tom, his friend, in married contentment.  Janice Regan’s vituperation was a voice not just her own, but of others who would count themselves the elders of the village.  Charker Smith, that excellently honed tool of destruction, waited only to get drunk enough before he came to avenge his brother; and when he came….Oh, Joseph!

So why was he not more afraid?

Well, a part of him certainly was – a part of him was terrified, but that part of his mind also saw the Lamb property as an excellent opportunity and of course, should he elect not to stay in Hallbury he could always find a tenant.  But there was another part that seemed to almost defy explanation, something more powerful, something real:  Hallbury was his home.  And that filled him with a courage and resolve that was extraordinary.  He could ride out as many troubles as there were in his desire to stay there, because there, the place – not a house, or a woman, or the sweet breath of country air – was where he belonged.   He had run from it once, when he had lacked experience in life to understand the importance of belonging:  he would not make that mistake again.

The morning was far from over when Joe entered the gravel drive of Maddockgate Manor.  Mrs Forster, the matron, admitted him when he pressed the visitors’ bell.

“Mr Palliser, isn’t it?  Didn’t we explain that Michael has been moved?”

Yes, Joseph acknowledged; but perhaps Mrs Forster didn’t know that Michael had absconded.  His family were naturally very anxious about him – did she have any idea if he had friends who would take him in?   No, Mrs Forster said after consideration, she didn’t.

“He used to visit a supervised house in Marsden, didn’t he?”  Joe suggested:  “Could he have gone there?”

“I shouldn’t have thought so. It would be like turning himself in, so to speak.  The owner is a qualified psychiatric nurse, who I’m sure would call us if Michael appeared without an escort.  He would call us, very probably.”

Joseph repeated Michael’s assertion that he was allowed from time to time to go out on his own.  This drew a surprised look from Mrs Forster, for whom even the thought of such liberty was clearly shocking.  Michael was delusional, she responded – he might have been convinced in his own mind that he enjoyed such privileges, but that did not necessarily make them real.  Nevertheless Joe had inadvertently struck a nerve.  He pressed home his advantage.  Suppose, for whatever reason, they were real?  Suppose Michael had been trusted, say, to run short errands on his own, suppose he had been able to sneak away?

He needed to talk to the nurse in charge in Marsden: see if there are connections the family knew nothing about.

The matron considered this.  “Would you wait here for a moment?”

She kept Joe waiting, in fact, for about ten minutes, while she disappeared into her office.  At length she returned.  Unsmiling, she placed a piece of paper in Joe’s hand.

“Mr Winter, the charge nurse, is in until about two o’clock.  I called him to say you were on your way:  I didn’t explain why.”

Joe embarked upon the road to Marsden-on-Sea, pondering the matron’s exact meaning.  Why had she elected not to tell this person the reason for his visit?  In spite of her defence of the nurse, did she suspect that Mr Winter’s care was not all it might be?

A buffeting onshore wind wrenched irritably at the Wolsey and hurled spray at it as he drove along Marsden’s courageous little esplanade.  Flashing neon bravely proclaimed ‘Non-Stop Bingo’, ‘Live Arcade’, ‘Fish and Chip Heaven’ to a scattering of the foolhardy and the half-drowned who ran from one venue to another, plastic macs gathered transparently against the elements.  A motley line of desperate Edwardian hotels displayed signs offering ‘Special Bank Holiday Rates’ – timely warning of the forthcoming holiday weekend.

But it was the sea, the battle-front between land and water, that drew Joseph here.  It was many years since he had seen the Channel in full spate, and there was a perverse veneration owed to power such as this.  White caps charging forth upon  the shore, chasing along quoins, leaping the sea wall.  Winging gulls, masters of their element, riding the storm like ethereal surfers:  these were things he loved.  Joe had been to Marsden many times and often on days like these, once with Emma, happy to walk beside him by the shore, the gale screaming through her bright hair, laughing at the whip of salt rain on her face – kisses on cold, wet lips, arms warm with love.

How could he ever have forgotten her?  How could he have put her, all this, aside so easily?  However could he turn away again?  As he drew up to the neatly-written address which lay on the passenger seat at his side it was not the surf still stinging in his eyes, but mourning for opportunities missed, for lost love.

Rosebank Crescent was ‘on the hill’; one of many streets lined by similar detached villas, all of which were in a state best described as ‘mature’. Number seventeen’s red roof-tiles were greyed by lichen, its rendered walls a spider-web of cracks.  There was putty missing from the window frames, and paint missing where putty was not.

Joe wielded a big brass knocker which projected from the front door like a grotesque nose.  The letter box drew up a flappy lip:

“Who’s that?”  A voice empty of any form of artifice.

“I’m Joe Palliser.”

“Hello Joe!”  The wind thrashed, the rain lashed.  The door remained closed.

“Can I come in?”

After an interval:  “Who is it?”

“I’m Joe.”

Suddenly the door was flung open to reveal a very tall, very wide young man whose ample features creased into a beatific smile:  “Hello Joe.  It’s windy!”

“Yes.”  Joe agreed.

“Shut that bloody door!”  Snarled a voice from the rear of the house.

“Come on.”  Said the large young man.  He ambled backwards into an entrance hall.  “I’m Terry.”  He held out a big hand which Joe shook warmly.  “How do you do, Joe?”

“How do you do, Terry?”

As if ignited by a fuse, Terry turned and walked rapidly away towards a door at the rear of the hall, his denims taut around stubby legs, faded carpet slippers shuffling on the parquet.  “I’ll get him.”  He said over his shoulder.

The hallway of the house was furnished unpretentiously, a barometer on the wall, a small hall table, a couple of upright chairs.  Its walls were papered with woodchip and painted in mint green, a pendant light hung from a textured ceiling.  The wind’s surreptitious intrusion rattled its doors.  It was a house, but it was not a home.

Terry had been gone no more than ninety seconds when a much sparer specimen of masculinity, clad in a thin black polo-neck sweater and checked flares appeared.

“Can I help you?”  his voice was a high tenor.  “I’m Morris Winter.”

Joe saw why Mrs Forster had registered some disquiet at his suggestion that he might visit here:  the professional title of ‘charge nurse’ did not hang easily upon Mr Winter, whose careless appearance, flabby, unshaven face and defensive look spoke of one expecting arrest rather than an expert carer.  Winter ran his fingers through fair, greasy locks which fell nearly to his shoulders.

“Joseph Palliser.  I believe Mrs Forster told you I was coming?”

“Yeah, she did.”  Winter frowned suspiciously; “You from the gov’ment?”

“No,  I’m Michael Palliser’s brother?  You remember Michael?  He comes to stay here from time to time.”

Winter’s expression brightened.  “Mikey!  Ah yes, Mikey!  Of course! Look, you better come in; have a cup of tea.  Terry – make this nice man some tea.”  He grinned a gappy grin:  “He’s a good kid, Terry.  He likes to make tea.”

Terry had reappeared and stood in the doorway behind Winter.  He nodded happily.  “Good tea!”

“No thank you Mr Winter, I’m not staying.”  Joe said hurriedly.  “I just wanted to ask a couple of quick questions, that’s all.”

“Well, fire away, then.  Yes, fire away!  Sure you won’t have some tea?”

“No, no thanks. I’m trying to trace anyone who knows Michael.  He’s allowed out, isn’t he – do you know if he sees any friends in the town?”

Winter’s brow furrowed but he made no attempt at denial.  “He always has money of his own, has Mikey – not like some of them.  I tell him; if you get thirsty or hungry, there’s cafes who’ll welcome us.  We know which ones, see?  And he treats us sometimes, don’t he, Terry?”

Terry nodded a happy affirmative.  “Mikey’s rich.”

“So he does go out – for how long, an hour, a day?  Does he ever stay out overnight?”

“Oh no, no more than a few hours!”  Winter shook his head.  “I tell him: ‘we got to be back by eight o’clock, Mikey’.  He always is.  I wouldn’t let him stay out overnight.”

“Did he go out the Friday before last?”

“Last time he was down here?  Might of, yes, I think he did.”

“And came back at about eight?”

“Yeah.”  Winter reflected.  “Got himself in a bit of a state, he did.  Does that from time to time, Mikey.  Had to give him a pill, that night.”

“Was he out longer that day – was he ever unsupervised?”

A flicker of concern crossed Winter’s face.  “No.  Did I say that?  No.”

“Who was with him, Mr Winter?”

“Well – I was, wasn’t I?”

At this, Terry’s moon-faced smile suddenly changed.  He raised an anxious finger, as if he had something to say if he were given permission.  Joseph picked up on the gesture:  “Can you help, Terry?”

Terry said to Mr Winter:  “You were with me.”

Winter glanced over his shoulder, saying quite sharply:  “No, you didn’t come with us, Terry – not that time.  It wasn’t your week.”

“You and me played draughts.”  Terry reminded him.

“No, you got it muddled up, Terry,”  Winter corrected.  “This was last week.  You weren’t down here last week.”

Terry’s brow creased in concern.  “Can’t play draughts when Mikey’s here.  He calls it ‘devil game’ and he hits the board.  We only play when…”

“Terry!”  Winter’s voice took on a dangerous edge:  “You weren’t here, mate.”

Terry was not to be repressed:  “Mikey went out so we played draughts.”

Winter smiled, a thin, unconvincing smile:  “He gets confused.”  He said.

Terry’s face displayed anything but confusion.  Joe, worried that Terry might be at risk if he persisted, took up the thread hurriedly:  “Supposing Michael should get out – slip away – on his own, is there anyone in the town or nearby he might confide in, or who he might call a friend – apart from here?”

“No, not that I can think.  Not that it could happen.”  Mr Winter’s rictus smile was becoming irritating.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you clear up your little mystery, whatever it is.”

In the background, Terry had begun to rock on the balls of his feet.  This display of agitation, though silent, was not lost on Winter:  Joe could see his eyes shifting, his jaw starting to work:  “If there’s nothing else?”

“Thank you for your help.”  Said Joe, turning to leave.  “If you think of anything…”

“I’ll tell the proper people, yes.”

Suddenly Terry’s voice rang out:  “Mikey went out.  Him, he was worried, ‘cause Mikey didn’t come back, not ‘til very late!  Very, very late!  We played….”

Winter’s voice sliced through the outburst as finely as a razor:“Terry!  No cake!”

Whatever the threat could mean, it silenced Terry.  His face fell, his body collapsed as though he had been punctured.  The prolonged “Ooooh” he uttered had an undertone of fear.

Winter’s visage was contorted by desperation:  “See here, Mr Palliser:  outsiders, they don’t know what its like, this job.  It don’t pay well, there’s never a moment when you can…alright, maybe Mikey does get out from time to time.  He’s usually OK, yeah?  He’s fine.  Just goes out in the town, has a little walk along the front, drops into a café or two.  He never does no harm to anyone, never gets in anyone’s way; only the other week – I don’t know – something must have gone wrong:  somebody had a go at him, or something.  See?”

Joe found himself nodding, almost sympathising with this tired and probably inadequate man who was expressing sentiments he had experienced himself so many times.

“Don’t worry;” he heard himself saying; “I’ve no reason to persecute you. I needed to know, that’s all.”

At the door, Winter took him by the arm.  “You won’t say nothing?”  Joe shook his head.

“The Shilling Café,”  Winter said.  “On Duke Street, just off the Esplanade.  He goes there.”

Outside on the street, the wind had increased in fury.  A tidal surge was carrying full waves over the seawall, thrusting angrily into ornamental garden plots, thrashing across the esplanade, deserted now, the whole seafront empty except for a few brave walkers who tempted and teased at nature, staring her in her raging eye as she lunged for them with boiling cascades.

The Shilling Café proclaimed its raison d’etre on a hand-written sheet of paper taped to its window:  ‘Meal for a Shilling!’   The facia celebrated its cheapness:  within, two naked strip lights threw a soulless glow over cream walls, bentwood chairs and bare tables; nearly all of which were empty.  Behind the counter amid an array of stainless steel and china, a small woman in a floral apron welcomed Joseph expansively.

“Well now!  Here’s someone with a taste for adventure! I was just thinking about closing, dear.  But seeing as its you…”

Joe ordered a cup of tea and a ham roll and while he waited for them to appear, he asked questions;  “Do you know someone called Michael, or Mikey, who comes in here?”

“Oh, Mikey!  He’s one of Morris Winter’s guests.  Yes, I know him, don’t I?”

“Has he been in here recently?”

“Mikey?  Why he’s in and out all the time, dear – whenever he’s down here.  He’s a bit mad, mind. He calls me his Flossy Hilda – told me once I reminded him of a Rhinemaiden – I ask you!”

“Really?”  Joe felt he ought to keep the conversation to essentials – who knew where Mikey’s mind might have taken him next?  “Was he in here on his own, the Friday before last?”

“I can tell you he wasn’t,” said the woman, “’cause it was his week and I laid in a lasagne for him specially.  He likes lasagne.”  She shook her head.  “Then he didn’t come.  Set your clock by him, normally.”

“I don’t suppose he’s been in since?  In the last couple of days, for instance?”

“Well no.  But he wouldn’t be, dear.  It’s not his week.  Are you looking for him then?”

“I’m his brother.  We seem to have lost touch, that’s all.”  Joe explained.  “Did he ever have company?”

“His Brother?  Well, I’ll never be!  Mind, I can see the likeness there.  Morry Winter must have brought him in the first time, ages back, but no-one since.  Oh, wait, now, there was that well-dressed fella – a couple of times, him.  Not long ago, either.”

“Can you describe him?”  Joe asked.

“Well-dressed, dear, like I said.  A nice suit:  not John Colliers, if you see what I mean?  Sort of thirties, medium height – dark hair, I think.  Proper nice looking wasn’t he?”

“What sort of nice looking?”  Joe persisted:  “What colour eyes – large nose, small nose?”

“Well, sort of average, I think.  Here’s your roll, dear.”

Try as he would, Joe could not elicit further detail concerning this mystery man, so he quaffed his tea and an amply buttered ham roll with a taste memory that would stay with him for the rest of the afternoon.  As he left, the little woman in the apron asked: “You’ll know, won’cha?  These Rhinemaidens – what do they do, exactly?”

Fleeing the gale, Joe hunched into his collar, making for the sanctuary of his car so quickly he failed to notice an Austin Princess that was parked across the street.  He knew for certain now – Michael had been away from his carers and alone on the day Violet Parkin died.  Hallbury was not so far away – had he also been there?  Had he, with the extraordinary strength of madness, wielded the pitchfork that had dispatched the old lady so cruelly?  How else could he know the precise manner of her death? As Joe made his way back to Hallbury, counting off the miles, his mind was intrigued by a new mystery:who was the man in the suit; the good looking man who was so completely unmemorable?  Whoever he was, Michael had clearly known him, and their meetings, or at least one of them, would have had to be by arrangement; unless, of course, this man was following Michael…

 

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit:  Brandon Molitwenik on Unsplash